Dhe Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza has only one Rembrandt in his collection, the “Self-Portrait with Hat and Two Chains” from 1642/43. The house has brought together an exhibition around this portrait, following the 350th anniversary of death in the previous year. However, the approximately one hundred paintings and graphics are not only about Rembrandt, but also about portrait painting in Amsterdam from 1590 to 1670. He himself produced around forty works, including a good twenty portraits. The result is an attractive panopticon, a group portrait with immediate forerunners, colleagues, competitors and successors in the Dutch Golden Age.
When Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam from his native city of Leiden in 1631, there was a huge demand for portraits in the largest city in the independent Netherlands. An enormous number of customers wanted themselves and their families to be painted as representative domestic jewelry. The need came from the patriciate, from the urban elites of the officials and dignitaries, but also from citizens who had made their fortunes in the prospering city with trade and commerce. The need, which was no longer predominantly related to the church or reserved for the nobility, but rather private, increased above all since 1578 with the advent of Calvinist rule in Amsterdam. Eloquent testimony to this are the group portraits of the citizen guards and vigilantes: the genre of Dutch group portraits reaches its peak. The best known will be Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” from 1642, depicting the Amsterdam rifle guild.
It can be assumed that thousands of portraits were painted in Amsterdam at the time, most of which were lost. But a considerable part was preserved. To date, more than 130 of the painters who produced portraits from the end of the sixteenth to the last third of the seventeenth century and of whom works are known can be identified. The prices were high: a life-size portrait of a breast cost about forty guilders, a half-length portrait for sixty guilders, and a three-quarter portrait for about eighty guilders; for a hundred guilders there was a full-size portrait. For comparison: a simple craftsman earned a maximum of 250 guilders a year.
Group portrait with the rules of history painting
When Rembrandt came to Amsterdam, he was said not to have painted a portrait. There was strong competition in the capital, and it was classy, as the works shown in Madrid impressively demonstrate: Cornelis van der Voort, Cornelis Ketel and Jacob Backer or Aert and Gerrit Pietersz are the names of the successful colleagues.